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Russia: Sputnik's Launch 40 Years Ago Put Space Race In Orbit

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 3 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - A former top Russian scientist says the launch of the first Sputnik satellite 40 years ago ignited the international exploration of space and created a revolution in the telecommunications and aerospace industries.

Roald Sagdeev, the Director of the Institute for Space Studies of the Soviet Academy of Sciences from 1973 to 1988, told RFE/RL that the October 4, 1957 launch of the Soviet-made Sputnik satellite marked a "tremendous technological advancement" for all of science.

Sputnik I was the first artificial satellite to successfully orbit the Earth. It was shaped like a small metallic sphere, weighed 84 kilograms and measured about 58 centimeters in diameter. The satellite carried a small radio transmitter that beeped continually as it circled the globe every 96 minutes.

The transmitter lasted for only three weeks, but scientists and researchers who tracked it discovered valuable information about the density of the upper atmosphere and its effect on the satellite. Finally, after 92 days in space, Sputnik I reentered the Earth's atmosphere and burned up.

Scientifically, the launch was significant because for the first time man had conquered gravity and blasted into space.

For military experts, the launch was important because it confirmed that intercontinental ballistic missiles could replace the old strategic bombers in terms of capability and accuracy.

Sagdeev, who now lives permanently in the U.S. and is a professor at a university in the northeastern state of Maryland, says he was a young scientist working in another branch of classified Soviet science -- nuclear science -- when the Sputnik launch occurred.

He says he was "taken by complete surprise" by the launch.

"Science and technology in sensitive areas was so compartmentalized that we in the nuclear area, had no idea what was happening in rocket science," says Sagdeev.

Sagdeev says that the Soviets did not at first fully realize the significance of what they had done.

"Only after international reaction, and especially the excitement in America and Europe, did the Soviet government finally realize that they had discovered a gold mine," says Sagdeev.

Sagdeev says the Soviet government then proceeded to use the Sputnik launch for propaganda purposes and as an instrument of international and domestic politics.

"Sputnik in orbit was a demonstration that there was rapid progress in technology and industry going on [in the Soviet Union]. It clearly provided a boost of enthusiasm to the people," says Sagdeev.

But Sagdeev says that the Sputnik launch, despite its remarkable scientific achievements, also had a detrimental effect on the Soviet Union.

"To a large degree, ironically, [Sputnik] helped the government mask the deterioration of the Soviet economy. It helped to continue the stagnating economic policy until the late Brezhnev period and postponed the need for economic and political reform in society until the time of Gorbachev," says Sagdeev.

But Sagdeev says that the launch did a "great favor to American science and technology."

The Sputnik launch was a "big surprise" to most Americans, says Sagdeev, and sparked a heated national debate about the quality of science education in the United States.

A prominent congressman at the time John McCormack (D-Massachusetts) even went so far as to declare that the U.S. faced "national extinction" if the country could not effectively compete with the Soviets in space. In remarks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives McCormack said the "survival of the free world -- indeed, all the world -- is caught in the stakes."

A year after the launch of Sputnik, the U.S. created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and embarked on an ambitious program to match the Soviets in space.

Many educational and science programs in schools and universities across the United States were dramatically restructured and reorganized to focus heavily on math, physics and emerging technology.

In 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy declared that the U.S. would be the first to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely before the end of the decade. In 1969, American Neil Armstrong fulfilled his prophecy and became the first man to set foot on the moon. Kennedy did not live to see the American triumph. He was assassinated in November, 1963.

Sagdeev says he has no doubt the launch of Sputnik created a renaissance in American science.

This week, the American space agency NASA marked the 40 anniversary of the launch of Sputnik by holding a two-day conference in Washington. Scientists, historians, scholars and researchers came together to discuss the role Sputnik played in scientific and technological development.

Yet despite all of its achievements, Sagdeev says Sputnik's design was remarkably simple. Compared to contemporary standards, says Sagdeev, Sputnik's capability was 1 billion times smaller than what is possible from today's multitude of satellites.

But it was the launch of Sputnik, and the revelation that man might one day conquer space, that sparked new innovations and led to future technological successes, says Sagdeev.

Today, 40 years after the launch of Sputnik, satellites are a critical part of global communications. In fact, the launch of communication, weather and military satellites are so commonplace, that some scientists and researchers are becoming concerned that space will soon become overcrowded.